At the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo, no one had greater luck than the Belgian women. With mistakes from some of their best, they didn’t look likely to qualify to the test event as a team, but then Mexico had a meltdown of epic proportions on bars.
Belgium ended up finishing with a 208.828 in Tokyo, almost exactly two points higher than Mexico to secure the final team qualification spot at the test event in London at the start of 2012. They put together the best team possible, worked insanely hard to improve, and then in the second subdivision of qualifications, had an incredible performance, finishing eight points ahead of their worlds team score with a 216.863.
It’s not easy going from 16th place one month to being among the 12 best teams in the world only a few months later, and with the top teams reaching the 220s, it was going to be close. The Belgian women held onto their spot through a nail-biting fourth and final subdivision, and when the Brazilian women began to falter on beam in the last rotation, it was almost unbearable to wait for the results.
In the end, Brazil squeaked in by a point. Their cries of relief and ecstatic celebrations overshadowed the Belgians’ disappointment. It was bittersweet for the team, as on the one hand, no other team showed greater improvement in such a short space of time. But on the other hand, getting so close to a seemingly impossible goal only to miss out by a single point is a tough pill to swallow.
The Brazilian women upon learning they beat Belgium and qualified to the London Olympic Games
This year, Belgium will once again compete at the test event, but now they’re going in not on the cusp of the top 16, but in the top half of the eight teams that will compete for the four remaining Rio spots this April. With an 11th place finish in Glasgow despite injuries to two of their competing members and with two of their best athletes too young to compete, Belgium will travel to Rio as one of the most capable teams with the odds of qualifying a full team to the Olympic Games greatly in their favor.
Why does all of this matter? Nina Derwael, a 15-year-old from the village of Velm, was one of those juniors left at home during worlds last year and should be instrumental in bringing her team to Rio next summer.
Nina is one of the most exciting new senior prospects in 2016. While bigger programs like the United States and Russia have gymnasts that can outscore her, no other country with a shot as a team will rely on its new seniors in the way Belgium will.
Beginning her elite path at the age of nine, Nina consistently topped the podium in provincial and regional competitions early on. She was the Flemish all-around champion every year from 2009 through 2012, and when she made it to the national level at age 11, took the silver that year and then gold the next in the espoir age divisions.
Nina begins to show a fantastic performance ability at age 10
Nina didn’t compete in 2013, and when she returned at the junior international level in 2014, she was good…but there was no indication that she’d go beyond “good.” She struggled a lot that year, actually, getting close but then either falling or coming up short due to a lack of difficulty.
Her all-around scores hovered in the 50-52 range, aside from a high of 53.7 in the masters division of Elite Gym Massilia in November, where she earned the bronze medal after hitting everything but beam. But for the most part, she couldn’t get through a competition without issues, which was a shame because her long lines and gorgeous style made you expect so much more.
Though she scored only a 50.5 in the all-around at the Top Gym Tournament hosted in her country, she finished her 2014 season on a high note, winning the silver medal on bars after promising work in what was her best routine of the year.
Perhaps it was that silver medal that offered a spark of inspiration, but when she returned to competition after hiatus exactly four months later, she earned the title of Belgian junior national all-around champion with an all-around score of 55.316, a total that bested the top senior competitor by two full points. Her nationals performance included the top scores on every single event but vault, where she placed second just 0.05 behind the winner. She improved everywhere, adding difficulty and polishing her execution on all four events by quite a lot, though bars was where it came through the most.
Her nationals score on this event was a monstrous 14.7, a score that at first glance seemed like egregious home scoring. Except Belgium isn’t known for overly generous scoring at domestic meets, and the video would prove any doubter absolutely wrong.
Aside from a slightly hesitant start with the leg separation on her stalder full into the Chow half, her routine is a thing of beauty. She has slow and dreamy elegance about her, and she somehow makes her already long lines even longer thanks to a slight hyperextension in her knees and her lovely toe point.
This wasn’t a fluke performance. At the Flanders International Team Challenge in May, Nina won the junior all-around title, and her score of 56.05 was once again the best of the day including senior competitors, not an easy feat with 112 international elite gymnasts at the meet. She defeated seasoned competitors like Flavia Saraiva, Marine Brevet, Daniele Hypolito, Pauline Schaefer, Elisabeth Seitz, Lieke Wevers, and Sophie Scheder in addition to her own teammates, performing some of her best work on all four events.
Nina went on to qualify into the all-around with a 56.1 at the European Youth Olympic Festival that summer, behind only Russia’s Daria Skrypnik, and though she fell twice in finals, on bars and beam, she still managed to come out with fourth place. She also walked away as the bars silver medalist with a massive score of 14.8 in addition to the bronze medal on floor, where she earned a 13.75.
Nina and Daria became good friends at EYOF
Her final meet as a junior was Elite Gym Massilia, where she earned a personal best of 56.3 in the all-around, placing fifth behind Russian junior superstar Angelina Melnikova, senior standouts Marine Brevet of France and Diana Bulimar of Romania, and another Russian junior, Natalia Kapitonova.
This score came with a fall on her upgraded bar routine, which included a brand-new Bhardwaj, perhaps one of the best competed. Unfortunately, her hands slipped on her van Leeuwen, knocking what would have been a 15+ score down to a 14.05. Had she hit, she likely would’ve placed second in this incredibly competitive field.
The bars fall meant no event final there, but she did reach the finals on beam and floor, performing well on both to earn beam bronze with a 13.7 and to finish fifth on floor with a 13.733, a solid end to an incredibly inspiring season for the young gymnast.
Here’s her floor performance from Massilia just below. While she isn’t the strongest tumbler, she has an immense command of the arena when she’s on floor, typical of the Belgian gymnasts today. Quirky choreography, great extension, and her own personal flair make her someone you want to stop and watch when she takes the stage.
Nina continues to train big skills that will advance her even further in the sport she loves. In the fall, she was working on a stalder version of the toe-on Tkachev with a half twist known as the Tweddle (which would be a brand-new skill), and in one video on Instagram she shows herself connecting this skill straight into the Ezhova transition. No big deal.
As the best all-arounder among the Belgian women with perhaps the best bars set the country has ever had, Nina’s inclusion on the test event team isn’t even a question. She, along with fellow new senior and good friend Axelle Klinckaert, absolutely has the potential to help her country get a full team to the Olympic Games in 2016.
Literally nothing is better than the friendship between Nina and Axelle.
Look for Nina at the Olympic test event in Rio this April, and then again at the Belgian Championships in May. We can’t wait to see how much she continues to improve, and hope she has a super successful 2016.
Article by Lauren Hopkins